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Firings are urged over misuse of kids’ money

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County child welfare workers who misused thousands of dollars meant for foster children should be fired and forced to return the money, county supervisors said Wednesday.

Supervisor Gloria Molina described the practices highlighted in a county audit released a day earlier as a “new version of taking candy from children.” The audit showed some employees bought themselves lunches and attended musical events with money intended for foster children.

“I’m asking that these people be terminated immediately,” she said. “These are limited resources for children, and people like this shouldn’t be taking advantage of this, and obviously they are.”

Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for criminal charges to be filed against any employees who misused the gift cards and entertainment tickets cited in the audit.

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“Fraud was committed,” he said. “Gift cards were to be used for foster children, not to be used for the case workers.”

The Department of Children and Family Services said that it had begun disciplinary proceedings against four managers and that more could face punishment once the county’s investigation is complete.

Department Director Patricia S. Ploehn said she was consulting with lawyers to determine whether the county can demand reimbursement. She declined to detail the possible punishment, citing confidentiality rules concerning personnel records.

Meanwhile, county Auditor-Controller J. Tyler McCauley said his office would discuss the results of the audit with the district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.

The audit, which focused on employees in a mentoring program for foster children, is the latest black eye for the county’s child welfare agency.

While successfully reducing the number of children in foster care, the department has been beset in recent months by a series of management problems.

Earlier this year, county auditors faulted the department for failing to adequately keep track of its supply purchases, concluding that procurement workers had wasted more than $1 million on unnecessary or overpriced equipment.

In June, the agency reported that financial miscalculations and other problems had helped create an $8-million hole in its budget last year and forecast it needed to plug an additional $32-million hole during this fiscal year. The announcement drew criticism from supervisors, who said the department had expanded too quickly without watching the bottom line.

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Supervisors praised Ploehn for moving quickly to deal with the problems, noting that she had called for the original audit that identified waste, but they said she has much to do.

“You can’t be running eight-figure deficits that come at you at the last second,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. “You have scandal rampant in your department. . . . You’ve got to get your arms around them swiftly and unforgivingly. There’s got to be zero tolerance.”

Molina blamed a long-standing culture in the department that she said bred a sense of entitlement among a small but influential number of employees.

“I think there’s many a social worker there who have probably been there far too long, who don’t understand their own personal mission and responsibility,” and they “should be moving on to other roles and responsibilities,” she said.

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Ploehn, who took over as director in September 2006, acknowledged department managers had focused heavily on preventing child abuse and finding permanent homes for children in recent years. But “we took our eye off of some of the basics that need to be done in running a department of this size,” she said.

In their latest report, auditors singled out the purchase of 160 tickets in July to see the hit musical “Wicked” as part of a $14,000 gala event for foster children and their mentors.

Only 53 children and roughly the same number of mentors were given tickets. The rest went to department employees and their relatives and guests, along with unidentified “potential mentors” and a number of employees of not-for-profit organizations, auditors wrote.

The audit also faulted employees for using gift cards -- bought with county money to supply food and clothing to foster children -- to pay for staff luncheons.

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The findings raised concerns that businesses and other members of the public might be deterred from making donations to foster children.

“I hope from my heart on behalf of these kids that no one pulls away from support of them because of this sad violation of public trust,” said Deanne Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the county Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

jack.leonard@latimes.com


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